HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe looks increasingly isolated after his violent crackdown on political opponents and may well carry out his threat to expel Western diplomats, observers said on Tuesday.
Harare warned on Monday it would not hesitate to kick out ambassadors it suspects of supporting anti-Mugabe forces, raising the stakes in a showdown involving the 83-year-old ruler, an emboldened opposition and several Western governments.
Mugabe referred to some Western ambassadors as "devilish characters" last week after the United States and others sharply criticized the arrest and beating of main opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and other government opponents.
Zimbabwean officials have not identified which countries could be targeted for potential expulsion, but they are thought to include former colonial master Britain, the United States, Australia and Sweden.
Zimbabwe has accused the four nations of helping Tsvangirai, leader of the main opposition party the Movement for Democratic Change, wage a violent campaign to end Mugabe's 27-year rule.
"I think Mugabe is feeling cornered, and truly believes that some Western countries are actively involved in a plot to unseat his government, and, yes, I can see him expelling one, two or three ambassadors if he thinks it will serve his cause," said Eldred Masunungure, a professor of political science at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare.
"His calculation may be that he will have very little to lose because many Western governments and banks have already withdrawn financial aid to his government," Masunungure added.
Foreign diplomats in Zimbabwe's capital Harare deny they are actively involved in opposition politics, saying instead that they are concerned about rights abuses by Mugabe's government.
Sweden's Minister for International Development Gunilla Carlsson said she did not believe Zimbabwe would expel the Nordic country's envoy, Sweden's national news agency said.
"Our ambassador and the other ambassadors are doing what they should do to support Zimbabweans in this tense time," Carlsson said, adding there were no plans for any diplomatic protest to the Zimbabwean government.
"We assume that this threat of expulsion will not be carried out," she said.
But a senior Western diplomat in Harare said on condition of anonymity that he would not be surprised if Mugabe carried out his expulsion threat, escalating the crisis in the southern African nation.
"This government has been behaving out of the norm, and we are alive to the fact they may as well take that route," the diplomat said.
Western representatives, including a British Foreign Office official, said their governments would continue to speak out against rights abuses in Zimbabwe regardless of threats.
The unnamed diplomat said any expulsions could make the international community "more focused" on Mugabe's human rights record but would not likely lead to cuts in humanitarian assistance to Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe has been relying on food aid from U.N. agencies and Western powers over the last six years as a result of a sharp drop in agricultural production that critics blame on Mugabe's seizures of white-owned farms for distribution to blacks.
Once southern Africa's bread basket, the country is struggling with inflation of more than 1,700 percent, frequent food and fuel shortages and unemployment of about 80 percent.